Ahead of the Nov. 3 parliamentary debate on the independent review of smoke-free 2030 policies, the Institute for Economic Affairs (IEA) has published an alternative strategy to reduce the smoking rate in England, titled The Alternative Smoke-Free 2030 Plan.
This approach stands in contrast with the recent Khan Review, which recommended banning the sale of cigarettes over time. Report author Christopher Snowdon argues that as long as demand exists—only 53 percent of British smokers say they want to quit—prohibitionist policies will result in endemic black market activity, crime and secondary poverty without eradicating smoking.
The alternative 12-point plan emphasizes the success of vaping and other safer alternatives in getting people off cigarettes. In Britain, where 9.3 percent of adults now vape, the smoking rate has dropped from 20 percent to 14 percent since 2012, according to the IEA. In the EU, where only 2 percent of adults vape, smoking prevalence fell by just 1 percent between 2014 and 2020. As of this year, 28 percent of smokers have never even tried an e-cigarette. Removing barriers to consumers accessing low-risk nicotine alternatives is vital.
Snowdon, the IEA’s head of lifestyle economics, recommends that the government tackle pervasive misinformation about the risks of e-cigarettes. Currently, 40 percent of English smokers falsely believe that nicotine causes cancer, and the number of smokers who wrongly think that vaping is as or more dangerous than smoking rose from 36 percent to 53 percent between 2014 and 2020. This is despite the fact that the Royal College of Physicians concluded that the long-term risks are “unlikely to exceed 5 percent of the harm from smoking tobacco.” The government should ensure that public health bodies promote the benefits of vaping relative to smoking.
Snowdon also proposes that the government embrace the freedom provided by Brexit to reform the Tobacco Products Directive (TPD). Article 20 of the TPD exacts punitive regulations on e-cigarettes, covering everything from advertising to the size of refillable vape tanks. According to Snowdon, cutting this red tape will lift powerful barriers to access.
Smokers could also be encouraged to quit by reducing the red tape burdens on other low-risk tobacco alternatives such as snus, heated-tobacco and nicotine pouches. These products are subjected to overzealous regulation, with snus outlawed in the U.K.
The U.K. has generally regulated e-cigarettes sensibly, according to the IEA. But with a greater focus on articulating the benefits of switching to low-risk tobacco alternatives and relaxing the associated regulatory regime, smoking may truly become obsolete, the think tank argues.
“The government’s plan to slash the smoking rate to 5 percent by 2030 is wholly unrealistic unless smokers switch to low-risk alternatives in large numbers,” says Snowdon. “Fortunately, a growing range of alternatives exist. All the government needs to do is create a regulatory environment in which they can flourish and ensure that smokers are not misled by fake news. There are a dozen simple, low-cost reforms that could be implemented that would help the government meet its health objectives without persecuting smokers.”